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North Coast winemakers shifting to machines to harvest grapes as labor woes mount

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NAPA — The message was clear Wednesday in an auditorium full of wine industry professionals: The machines are taking over the grape harvesting.

Vineyard managers who spoke at the 24th annual Vineyard Economics Symposium at the Copia educational center were in agreement that they were turning more toward machines to replace humans for various agricultural jobs given the dearth of available workers and the increasing costs to employ them. They differed only on how quickly the pace of the change to fewer people working in the vineyards will take place.

“Most of our contracts that we are doing now, we are trying to make sure growers can machine pick,” said Matt Heil, director of fruit supply at Copper Cane Wine & Provisions in the Napa Valley. His company uses machines in 85% to 90% of grape picks in the North and Central coasts with hand-picks saved for when it is necessary.

“The quality is there and (human) labor is just going to be really difficult,” Heil said at the Napa event sponsored by Wine Business Monthly.

Machines have been used to harvest fruit for at least 30 years in the premium wine grape regions of Sonoma and Napa counties. As technology improves, they are being used for other year-round duties, such as pruning, shoot thinning and leafing. Winemakers’ concern over the risk of machines bruising the grapes has lessened.

Meanwhile, a survey of 250 wine company executives released at the symposium found that the labor shortage and associated costs was their biggest concern, as 71% of the respondents selected that issue as one of their three biggest worries.

Farmers have been frustrated that immigration reform efforts have failed in Congress to provide relief, though some locally have used the federal H-2A visa program to import seasonal workers from Mexico.

Those who reside here are finding it hard to work in Sonoma and Napa counties with the pricey housing costs, even though the average field worker salary is between $18 to $20 an hour, said Towle Merritt, general manager of Walsh Vineyard Management in Napa. Instead, those workers may opt to live in Williams in Colusa County, where they will make a little less money, but the rental cost is half the price compared to local rents.

The use of more machines in the fields would have the most positive effect for California grape growers, according to the wine company survey.

Analysis has shown that machines can do the job for winemakers at a much lower cost after the upfront expenses of buying them. E. & J. Gallo Winery, for example, has found machines can do vineyard leafing duties up to 21 cents less per vine compared with hand crews, said Rob Weinstock, director of vineyard operations in Sonoma County. The Modesto company has about 500 vineyard acres in the North Coast planted to be accessible for machine work.

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